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Curtis Acosta

If you have seen the remarkable film Precious Knowledge, about the Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in Tucson, you’ll remember Curtis Acosta, the caring and charismatic high school language arts teacher. Despite its well-documented accomplishments and success in reaching historically marginalized students, Arizona politicians set out to destroy Tucson’s MAS program—through House Bill 2281, which singled out this program, and then through a decree from Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, which ruled Tucson’s program out of compliance with state law.

Rethinking Columbus banned

Rethinking Schools was drawn into the controversy when Tucson Unified School District banned and confiscated our book, Rethinking Columbus, which was one of seven core texts used in the MAS program. We published several blog posts and articles (here and here) on the struggle in Tucson, including two by Curtis Acosta.

Here we publish an open letter from Acosta, announcing his departure from Tucson High Magnet School and describing his new plans to continue his career as a mentor to young people and defender of public education.

By the way, Curtis Acosta will be leading workshops at this summer’s Free Minds, Free People conference in Chicago, and will keynote the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice conference this Oct. 19 in Seattle, co-sponsored by Rethinking Schools.

  - Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor

Dear supporters, colleagues, and friends,

Last Thursday my career at Tucson High Magnet School came to an end. It was never supposed to be this way. I always believed that I would leave with a fully gray head of hair and thicker lens than those currently in my black frames. I imagined that there would be a legacy of former students who would take my place and would take our levels of success even further. Instead, I took down each poster and photo from my room with a deep sense of loss and the words of Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” in my mind. It was as if I was participating in self-ethnic cleansing. (A wonderful side note to this story is that Bob Diaz, a librarian at the University of Arizona, has decided to create an archive of our classroom so that it can live on forever. Have I mentioned lately how much I love librarians?)

However, the reality is that the room and the power of the space were lost far before the pictures came off the walls. This moment was fated as soon as Tucson Unified School District eliminated our highly successful Mexican American Studies program, banning my colleagues and me from our own curriculum and pedagogy, as well as boxing up books. Yet, I would like to thank my students, compañer@s, parents, and the local and national voices that supported us through these difficult years in building up my resiliency and resolve to stand up and never to submit to acts of educational malpractice.

Thus, I am happy to inform you all that a brighter day lies ahead. Yesterday, I held a local press conference announcing that through a partnership with Prescott College, Mexican American Studies lives on through Chican@ Literature, Art & Social Studies (CLASS) where high school youth will receive free college credit. This is a class that was born from the injustices performed upon our students in Tucson and my indignation toward political opportunists using our students, literature, and history to create a wedge issue founded in hate for their own selfish means.

CLASS had a successful first year as a collection of 10 amazing youth, who sacrificed their Sunday afternoons throughout the entire year to rigorously study, analyze, and read the world together. It was a thirst of justice and knowledge that fueled them and they will soon be sharing their voice with the world at Free Minds, Free People in Chicago—a national education conference centered upon education for liberation and youth empowerment. However, our youth need financial help to attend, and although I am using the stipend from Prescott College to pay for part of the trip, it is still not enough. We would be humbled by any and all support and you can follow us now on Facebook and donate here.

Along with CLASS expanding and continuing next fall, I am happy to announce that I have founded the Acosta Latino Learning Partnership, an educational consulting firm that will continue the work that we started in Tucson throughout the nation. It is my vision to help teachers, schools, and educational organizations empower youth to find their own voice and academic identity through culturally responsive and engaging academic experiences.

I look forward to this next chapter of my career as I continue to be an advocate for public schools. After all, we know public education works. We’ve seen it be successful time and again, and as teachers we are honored to be the guides and mentors of beautiful young people who will forge a better nation and world. By following the inspirational leadership of the powerful teachers, students, and parents in Seattle and Chicago, this devious trajectory to destroy public education will end. One day soon we will stop the obsession of measuring our children and teachers with corporate driven instruments aimed at eliminating all of the creative joy from public education. And this is why our work here in Tucson must continue, we must never comply with unjust laws and policies that dehumanize and degrade our children.

Let all the reformers be warned that we are aware of why you want to discredit our profession and the heights that we reach with our students every year. We are more than a budding marketplace or real estate to redevelop, and we will not rest until our children are treated with more love and respect than the banks and corporations of this country. Trust teachers to work with their students, parents, and communities as true partners; support us with resources that our children deserve, and then watch the magic of learning take root and grow.

I want to thank you all for your support through the years and truly believe that great victories lie ahead for communities of color, our students and public schools throughout our nation.

In Lak Ech (Tú eres mi otro yo / You are my other me),

Curtis Acosta
Chican@ Literature Teacher
Tucson, AZ

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Many of you are familiar with the work of Tucson teacher Curtis Acosta. Acosta is the warm and eloquent—and photogenic!—language arts teacher featured in the film, Precious Knowledge, about Tucson’s now-outlawed Mexican American Studies program. The program is still suppressed, but the work goes on, as Acosta describes in this letter, recently posted to the Education for Liberation email list. Rethinking Schools continues to support this fine program and we urge you to show your solidarity in whatever way you can.

And, speaking of which, if you live near Seattle or plan to attend the upcoming National Council for the Social Studies conference, please join us for the presentation of our Zinn Education Project’s Myles Horton Award for Teaching a People’s History to Sean Arce, a key architect of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. Arce will be speaking and showing Precious Knowledge. Details here

- Bill Bigelow

Curtis Acosta

Dear Compañer@s and Supporters,

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the situation in Tucson. However, there are a few links that I felt I should share with those interested in our continued lucha to reinstate Mexican American Studies in Tucson. First and foremost, I would like you all to know that I am still teaching my Chican@ Literature classes at a youth center on Sundays. I have a great group of youth that have joined me. The classes are free and it has been healing to have the freedom to engage in critical dialogue about literature without the threat of demonization hanging over our heads. However, we are only a handful in our Sunday class,  and those good feelings are not balanced by the injustice of thousands of students who are not able to take our courses in their regular public school experience. It is shameful, but we are dogged in our determination to see MAS back in TUSD.

The following link is to an essay that I wrote for renowned author, and personal hero of mine, Ana Castillo. It is a part of her amazing online magazine La Tolteca. I decided it was important to explain in more detail how I used The Tempest in my Chican@/Latin@ Literature classes. If that interests you, please take a look.

How I used The Tempest in my Chican@/Latin@ Literature classes.

Here is a documentary that was filmed about how our classes have been dismantled and the fall out. It’s another unique perspective that may serve as good discussion and dialogue for you and your students.

I hope that we can count on more support for my colleagues Sean Arce and José Gonzalez as they continue to defend themselves against a frivolous lawsuit.

Support the Raza Defense Fund

Since our classes were eliminated there have been many different rumors and such about the future of MAS and the Tucson Unified School District, so I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by award winning writer, Jeff Biggers of the Huffington Post. It was a great way to actually address what the future may bring for us with a  federal desegregation order and plan to be revealed on Friday.

We have two new members of the school board as of last night, and the feeling in town is one of optimism. However, the administration is very much the same and our curriculum and books are still banned. I’m not sure what type of future there will be for my colleagues and myself, but we will keep fighting for restitution of our program. I hope this interview answers any questions you may be having, but if not, feel free to reach out and contact me or my colleagues for further details.

Will Tucson School Board Reinstate or Replace Mexican American Studies? Interview with Curtis Acosta.

We hope you are all doing well all over the country toward liberating and inspiring our youth to not only dream, but to have the will to act!

In Lak Ech,

Curtis Acosta

Tucson, AZ

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by Bill Bigelow

This past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson’s celebrated Mexican American Studies program—a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.

TOP: Some of the books removed from classrooms. BOTTOM: The film “Precious Knowledge” captures the impact and effectiveness of the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson.

The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson’s—and Arizona’s—attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.

For years, I opened my 11th grade U.S. history classes by asking students, “What’s the name of that guy they say discovered America?” A few students might object to the word “discover,” but they all knew the fellow I was talking about. “Christopher Columbus!” several called out in unison.

“Right. So who did he find when he came here?” I asked. Usually, a few students would say “Indians,” but I asked them to be specific: “Which nationality? What are their names?”

Silence.

In more than 30 years of teaching U.S. history and guest teaching in others’ classes, I’ve never had a single student say “Taínos.” So I ask them to think about that fact. “How do we explain that? We all know the name of the man who came here from Europe, but none of us knows the name of the people who were here first—and there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them. Why haven’t you heard of them?”

This ignorance is an artifact of historical silencing—rendering invisible the lives and stories of entire peoples. It’s what educators began addressing in earnest 20 years ago, during plans for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, which at the time the Chicago Tribune boasted would be “the most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations.” Native American and social justice activists, along with educators of conscience, pledged to interrupt the festivities.

In an interview with Barbara Miner, included in Rethinking Columbus, Suzan Shown Harjo of the Morning Star Institute, who is Creek and Cheyenne, said: “As Native American peoples in this red quarter of Mother Earth, we have no reason to celebrate an invasion that caused the demise of so many of our people, and is still causing destruction today.” After all, Columbus did not merely “discover,” he took over. He kidnapped Taínos, enslaved them—”Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold,” Columbus wrote—and “punished” them by ordering that their hands be cut off or that they be chased down by vicious attack dogs, if they failed to deliver the quota of gold that Columbus demanded. One eyewitness accompanying Columbus wrote that it “did them great damage, for a dog is the equal of 10 men against the Indians.”

Corporate textbooks and children’s biographies of Columbus included none of this and were filled with misinformation and distortion. But the deeper problem was the subtext of the Columbus story: It’s OK for big nations to bully small nations, for white people to dominate people of color, to celebrate the colonialists with no attention paid to the perspectives of the colonized, to view history solely from the standpoint of the “winners.”

Rethinking Columbus was never just about Columbus. It was part of a broader movement to surface other stories that have been silenced or distorted in the mainstream curriculum: grassroots activism against slavery and racism, struggles of workers against owners, peace movements, the long road toward women’s liberation—everything that Howard Zinn dubbed “a people’s history of the United States.”

Which brings us back to Tucson: One of the most silent of the silenced stories in the curriculum is the history of Mexican Americans. Despite the fact that the U.S. war against Mexico led to Mexico “ceding”—at bayonet point—about half its country to the United States, this momentous event merits almost no mention in our textbooks. At best, it is taught merely as prologue to the Civil War.

Mexican Americans were central to building this country, but you wouldn’t know it from our textbooks. They worked in the Arizona copper mines, albeit in an apartheid system where they were paid a “Mexican wage.” In the 1880s, the majority of workers building the Texas and Mexican Railroad were Mexicans, and by 1900, the Southern Pacific Railroad had 4,500 Mexican workers in California alone.

They worked the railroad, and they worked for their rights. In 1903, Mexican and Japanese farmworkers united in Oxnard, California, to form the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. As Ronald Takaki notes in A Different Mirror, “For the first time in the history of California, two minority groups, feeling a solidarity based on class, had come together to form a union.” They struck for higher pay, writing in a statement that “if the machines stop, the wealth of the valley stops, and likewise if the laborers are not given a decent wage, they too, must stop work and the whole people of this country suffer with them.”

Nowhere was this rich history of exploitation and resistance being explored with more nuance, rigor, and sensitivity than in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. Like Rethinking Columbus, Mexican American Studies teachers aimed to break the classroom silence about things that matter—about oppression and race and class and solidarity and organizing for a better world. Watch Precious Knowledge, the excellent film that offers an intimate look at this program—and chronicles the fearful, even ludicrous, attacks against it—and you’ll get a sense of the enormous impact this “rethinking” curriculum had on students’ lives.

This coming Monday, October 8th is the day set aside as Columbus Day. Let’s commit ourselves to use this—and every so-called Columbus Day—to tell a fuller story of what Columbus’s voyage meant for the world, and especially for the lives of the people who’d been living here for generations. And let’s push beyond “Columbus” to nurture a “people’s history” curriculum—searching out those stories that help explain how this has become such a profoundly unequal world, but also how people have constantly sought greater justice. This is the work on which educators, parents, and students need to collaborate.

***

If you care about nurturing a people’s history and ending Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, click here to find out how you can take action.

This column was first published at GOOD.

Related Resources

Rethinking ColumbusRethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. Teaching Guide. Edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson. 2003. 192 pages. Readings and lessons for pre-K to 12 about the impact and legacy of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas.

The Line Between Us

The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.Teaching Guide. By Bill Bigelow. 2006. 160 pages. Lessons for teaching about the history of US-Mexico relations and current border and immigration issues.

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by the editors of Rethinking Schools


Rethinking Columbus banned“Banned in Tucson.”

As many Rethinking Schools readers know, in January Tucson school officials ordered our book Rethinking Columbus removed from Mexican American Studies classes, as part of their move to shut down the program. In some instances, school authorities confiscated the books during class—boxed them up and hauled them off. As one student said, “We were in shock. . . . It was very heartbreaking to see that happening in the middle of class.”

Other books banned from Mexican American Studies classes included Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America, and Elizabeth Martínez’ 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures.

We are in good company.

Many commentators focused on the outrageous act of banning books. But the books were merely collateral damage. The real target was Tucson’s acclaimed Mexican American Studies program, whose elimination had long been a goal of rightwing politicians in Arizona. Their efforts ultimately found legislative expression in House Bill 2281, passed shortly after Arizona’s now-infamous Senate Bill 1070, which mandated racial profiling in immigration enforcement. National outrage focused on SB 1070, with barely any attention paid to HB 2281, a law whose origins lay in the same racial prejudice.

The law’s punchline comes in Section 15-112, which prohibits any courses that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Tom Horne, the former Arizona superintendent of public instruction and the state’s current attorney general, sums up the law’s curricular dogma: “Those students should be taught that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They should not be taught that they are oppressed.”

Of course, by “those students,” Horne means Mexican Americans. To assert that oppression is a myth, especially the oppression of Mexican Americans, one must be historically illiterate—or lying. A few examples: The state of Arizona itself was acquired by the United States through invasion, war, and occupation—an enterprise justified by notions of racial supremacy. As the Congressional Globe insisted in 1847, seizing Mexican territory for the United States “is the destiny of the white race. It is the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race.” A 1910 government report, quoted in the now-banned Occupied America, concluded: “Thus it is evident that, in the case of the Mexican, he is less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.” Today in Arizona, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than twice the percentage of Mexican American children live in poverty as white children: 64 percent to 30 percent. And Mexican Americans are twice as likely as whites to be incarcerated.

To demand that students think purely in terms of individuals and ignore race, class, and ethnicity is to enforce stupidity as state policy. Moreover, to erase solidarity from students’ conceptual vocabulary leaves them ignorant of how people have struggled to improve their lives—and have made the world a better place. Proposing that we rise purely as individuals—“I think I can, I think I can”—may be a comforting notion for social elites, but it’s simply wrong, empirically as well as morally. Outlawing solidarity benefits only those whose interests are threatened by people organizing for greater equality.

Today’s curricular ethnic cleansing in Arizona is the product of a toxic blend of fear and racism. Here’s Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal on NPR’s Tell Me More: “These issues are going to be huge philosophical issues for the United States as we become—as our whole racial makeup changes. And we need to know that there are a lot of serious concerns about how you educate kids, the values that you pass on to them.”

Translation: Whites are becoming a minority in this country. If children of color are taught to question structures of wealth and power; to think in terms of race, class, and ethnicity; to learn the history of solidarity and organizing; and come to see themselves as activists . . . well, the United States will be a very different place. In his 2010 campaign ads, Huppenthal promised to “Stop la raza.” Destroying Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program is one way he intends to keep that promise.

For rightwing politicians like Tom Horne, John Huppenthal, and Gov. Jan Brewer, it’s not the failure of the Mexican American Studies program that they fear—it’s the program’s success. According to Tucson’s own director of accountability and research, “there are positive measurable differences between MAS students and the corresponding comparative group of students.” Mexican American Studies students score higher on standardized reading, writing, and even math tests than their peers, are more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to attend college, and—a feature that doesn’t show up in the data printouts—are more likely to see themselves as activists.

This kind of education is a threat to those who would prefer Mexican Americans as quiet and compliant workers. Mayra Feliciano, a co-founder of the Tucson student activist group UNIDOS and an alumna of the Mexican American Studies program, told Jeff Biggers in an interview, “As long as people like Superintendent John Huppenthal and TUSD board members are afraid of well-educated Latinos, they will try to take away our successful courses and studies.”

Following one of Biggers’ fine Huffington Post blog posts on the Mexican American Studies program, one respondent, “Tucson Don,” directed his comments to a student Biggers had quoted:

“Hey Chicka, nobody is stopping you from learning about your own culture. But you now live in the US, and you can do that on your own time and your own dime! We Americans want you to learn to read (English), write (also in English) and be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide well enough to complete a business transaction without needing a computer to tell you that a $1.99 Egg McMuffin plus a $.99 hash browns and free coffee adds up to $2.98 before tax.” Tucson Don and his ilk echo the century-old words quoted above: the Mexican American is “less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.”

This is the “gutter education,” as the youth of South Africa used to call it, that the Mexican American Studies program was designed to supplant. Those who have read the letters and articles online by MAS teachers Curtis Acosta and Maria Federico Brummer, or who have seen the excellent film Precious Knowledge, know that this is not a program that teaches hate or “resentment.” It sparks curiosity, honors students’ lives, demands academic excellence, prompts critical thinking, invites activism, and imagines a better world.

Its ethos of love, mutual respect, and solidarity is expressed in the poem that has come to symbolize the program, borrowed from Luis Valdez’ 1971 Mayan-inspired “Pensamiento Serpentino”:

In Lak’ech (I Am You or You Are Me)

Tú eres mi otro yo.

You are my other me.

Si te hago daño a ti.

If I do harm to you.

Me hago daño a mí mismo.

I do harm to myself.

Si te amo y respeto,

If I love and respect you,

Me amo y respeto yo.

I love and respect myself.

We encourage Rethinking Schools readers to join the national solidarity campaign, “No History Is Illegal,” launched by the Teacher Activist Groups (TAG) network, to teach about this important struggle. In fact, Tucson’s program should not only be defended, it should be extended: We should demand that local, state, and federal policies support more multicultural, anti-racist education initiatives. As the U.S. school curriculum becomes increasingly shaped by giant multinational publishing corporations, it’s essential to stand up for—and spread—community-supported, social justice curriculum, as exemplified by Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program.

In Lak’ech. An injury to one is an injury to all.

Related Resources:

The Line Between UsThe Line Between Us explores the history of U.S-Mexican relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, all in the context of the global economy. And it shows how teachers can help students understand the immigrant experience and the drama of border life.

A People’s History for the Classroom helps teachers introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of U.S. history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula.

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by Jody Sokolower

The day the Tucson school board voted to kill the Mexican American Studies program, I was in Silwan, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, learning about a different fight to rewrite history.

Jawad Siyam is the director of Silwan’s Wadi Hilweh Information Center. Silwan, he explained to my partner Karen, my daughter Ericka, and me, has a history that stretches back to the time of the Canaanites. More recently, it was for many centuries thriving Palestinian farmland, a main source of food for the city of Jerusalem. Currently the history and the future of Silwan are under siege: Israel has given total power to a private company, Elad Association, which has been systematically demolishing the neighborhood and building an archeological park instead.

In the face of that threat, the people of Silwan have joined together to create the information center, a women’s crafts collective that is producing extraordinary needlework and mosaics, a sports field and cultural café, and a playground.

The Wadi Hilweh Information Center

There are two glass cases in the entryway to the information center: one is filled with artwork from the women’s collective, the other with teargas canisters and other ammunition that has been aimed at the center. We watched a video featuring the voices of youth from the neighborhood. Jawad showed us the house next door, which belonged to his grandparents. Now there are a dozen Israeli flags hanging across the front. As we watched, an armored car pulled into the gate. It is illegal to fly a Palestinian flag in East Jerusalem, so the center flies a “We Love Silwan” flag instead.

Artwork from the women's collective.

At the crafts collective, the women showed us how to make mosaics and pulled out dozens of examples of the needlework they are working on. At the cultural café, we drank coffee and talked with the staff, all of whom have been political prisoners in Israeli prisons. They told us how many kids from the neighborhood were playing soccer and volleyball on the sports field, and the plans for cultural events at the café.

Jody and her daughter Ericka at the Center

We met many amazingly resilient and brilliant people throughout Palestine, but Silwan was special: It seemed so full of hope in a situation that is often filled with losses and desperation. Since we returned to the United States, I have told all my friends, everyone I know, about Silwan.

This morning, one of those friends sent me a URL. “Isn’t this the neighborhood you told me about?” she asked. I opened the link to see a news article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: Yesterday the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority bulldozed the cultural café, destroying it completely, and seriously damaged the sports field. “This was the only place in the area to meet,” Jawad lamented, “to sit together. It was the only place for children in Silwan.”

How could this happen? The Israeli government claims that Silwan is the site of the biblical “City of David.” Although this finding is debated by archeologists, the Israelis have built the City of David National Park on the site, destroying dozens of Palestinian homes, a school and a mosque—either through direct demolition, seizure and re-occupation by Israeli settlers, or by digging under the foundations until the buildings collapse.

On Sunday, Feb. 12, the Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee approved plans for a visitors compound, vastly expanding the park. By Monday morning, the cultural café was rubble.

Archeology seems like a neutral science. Who, after all, could argue with the importance of understanding the past? But in occupied Palestine, like in Arizona, history and its uses are highly politicized. According to Raphael Greenberg of Tel Aviv University and Emek Shaveh, an organization of progressive Israeli archeologists, “The sanctity of the City of David is newly manufactured, and is a crude amalgam of history, nationalism, and quasi-religious pilgrimage.” Nonetheless, a half million tourists come to the park every year. They watch a 3-D movie that ignores the Palestinian history on the land, and walk down paths surrounded by high walls so they cannot see the Palestinian homes on every side.

Being in Palestine made me think a lot about the United States. In the United States, so much of the history of what came before is long buried. Every once in awhile there is news of a struggle by Native Americans to save a sacred site that is about to become a shopping mall. But in most parts of the United States, the hundreds of years of occupation have erased much of what came before. In Palestine, the fight is much newer, so the foundations of the buildings that have been destroyed are still there—sometimes the whole building or village is still there. And the Palestinians who were forced out of their homes starting in 1948 are still very much determined to return. How does time passing affect our responsibility to right wrongs?

As in Palestine, the determination not to be pushed out, buried, and forgotten is the crux of the matter in Tucson. The Mexican American Studies program is a way of keeping critical history from being erased and buried. “We are still here,” the teachers and the curriculum say. “We are still here, we are proud, our culture is strong. It is something all of us need and can use to build a just future.”

As social justice teachers, we know that justice is the only road to peace. That’s why teaching our students how to think critically about history is so important. And why solidarity is so important. In Tucson and in Palestine.

The Silwan community is determined to rebuild the cultural café by March 21, when Mother’s Day is celebrated in Arab countries. For more information on how to express your solidarity with the people of Silwan, visit the Middle East Children’s Alliance (www.mecaforpeace.org).

Jody Sokolower is the policy and production editor for Rethinking Schools.


Related Resource:

Portland to Palestine: A Student-to-Student Project Evokes Empathy and Curiosity, by Ken Gadbow

U.S. students talk directly with Palestinian youth and learn what it is like to live in a war zone.

from Rethinking Schools magazine, Winter 2009

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Dear Rethinking Schools friends,

As we wrote earlier, on Jan. 13, we learned that our book Rethinking Columbus had been banned in Tucson schools as part of Arizona’s broader suppression of the successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. We asked for ideas about how we could oppose the attacks on this program and act in solidarity with teachers and students there.

Rethinking Schools readers flooded us with comments and ideas. Thanks to all of you who wrote, called, posted on our Facebook page, and commented here on our blog posts. What a great community of conscience you are.

Rethinking Schools invites you to join the effort launched today, February 1, by the national Teacher Activist Groups (TAG) network: “No History Is Illegal: A Campaign to Save Our Stories“–by teaching lessons from and about the banned Mexican American Studies program. Visit the “No History Is Illegal” website, where you’ll find curriculum materials from the Mexican American Studies program as well as teaching ideas and resources developed by TAG teachers around the country.

Here’s the TAG “pledge,” which Rethinking Schools supports:

“In solidarity with the students and teachers in the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson, AZ, I pledge my support to teach and raise awareness about their struggle and to ensure that the perspectives and stories of historically marginalized populations are kept alive in our classrooms and communities.”

Sign on here.

And check out this Saturday’s “Teach-In on Tucson,” at Georgia State University, sponsored by Georgians for fREADom. They’ll be live streaming for those of us not in Georgia.

Rethinking Columbus bannedFinally, many of you have generously offered to buy copies of Rethinking Columbus and other banned books to send to students and teachers in Tucson. As you know, the book-ban is really just “collateral damage.” It’s the entire Mexican American Studies program that Arizona right-wingers have set out to crush.

Nonetheless, there are a number of efforts underway to get books into the hands of students and teachers there — including one we just learned about initiated by The People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street, which is collecting donations to send the seven banned Mexican American Studies program books to Tucson. We’ll keep you posted about these and other efforts.

Thanks for your important work, and for your support of Rethinking Schools.

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[On Jan. 10, the governing board of Tucson schools voted to terminate the popular and enormously successful Mexican American Studies program, under pressure from the Arizona state superintendent of education. We have posted a number of updates on the attacks on this program, including a letter that Tucson teacher Curtis Acosta wrote recently, describing the impact on his curriculum. In this letter, Acosta continues the story. The Teacher Activist Group (TAG) network will soon launch a national solidarity campaign in support of the Mexican American Studies program. We will post details.]

Curtis Acosta

Mr. Curtis Acosta

Unfortunately, there has been little guidance and movement toward how my colleagues and I are to move forward in the development of brand new curriculum and the pedagogical changes that must be made. As I wrote to you all last week, anything from the Mexican American Studies perspective is now illegal for the former MAS teachers. We are being asked to use the district-adopted textbooks as the model for how to move forward. We have been told that we can still teach about race and sensitive topics, which is in contradiction to earlier direction from our school/site administrators, but we must be balanced and cannot reflect MAS perspectives, although this has yet to be defined.

In fact, Norma Gonzalez (one of my MAS colleagues) was specifically told that she “CANNOT teach or discuss in class anything that is specific towards the culture and background of Mexican American students.” This is an exact quote from her administrator. She was also asked to leave the middle school site that she is currently teaching and forced to abandon all her current students. Norma’s mere presence at her school is seen as unbearable to her administration regardless of her quality work, dedication to her classes and amazing relationships she creates with her students. This is the damage being displayed in our classrooms in order to fall in line with the political motivations behind destroying our program.

What is troubling for all of us is the fact that we have always been balanced, encouraged students to engage in critical thought, and embraced diverse voices and viewpoints throughout our curriculum and pedagogy. The direction from the district implies the opposite regardless of the many audits and observations that have proven otherwise.

To put this in a more concrete way, my classes were designed in a way that showed multiple perspectives and voices. Here is a short list of authors who are not Mexican that I use: Sherman Alexie, Jane Yolen, Junot Díaz, David Berliner, Angela Davis, Pat Buchanan, Ofelia Zepeda, Malcolm X, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jonathan Kozol, and Martin Luther King Jr.

This is critical since we see a common theme that administration across the district has told my colleagues and myself — we are all to avoid Mexican work and perspectives at all costs. However, these authors are a part of the same censored, banned, or illegal curriculum and this surely means we must abandon these authors and this curriculum, too. We are also forbidden to use the critical lenses to view the work which challenges students to develop academically credible arguments in order to support their own views.

Thus, when they tell us we may move forward and develop multicultural curriculum it feels like we are being set-up to fail. The district has been caught in so much double speak and contradictory language they have no idea how to move forward, and we have no confidence in trusting them as they give advice. As I have mentioned in other interviews I do not feel safe teaching The Tempest or “Beyond Vietnam” by Dr. King as I normally have for years, since it is clear that the district wants us to not only abandon the history and culture of Mexican Americans, but also the curriculum and pedagogy developed by Mexican American teachers. The only safe route appears for us to flee from any history or voices of color, authors that echo the themes that we had used in the past, and embrace curriculum that does not venture down those pathways. In other words, for my colleagues and I we must step back in the time machine to Pleasantville.

We are working without a net and there have been credible claims that two TUSD Governing Board members have told our district superintendent that any violations by teachers should be disciplined harshly and immediately. Thus, my colleagues and I feel that our jobs are very much on the line, and we have not been given any reassurance through specific criteria in curriculum and pedagogy of what is to be avoided and how we can confidently move forward with our students.

Yet our students remain dedicated to the restoration of the program and to have their voices heard. This week many of them participated in walkouts and an Ethnic Studies School was created for a day by the youth of UNIDOS, where many community members and professors from the University of Arizona donated their time to teach the youth. Above all else it is their education that matters, and this massive disruption in their lives and schooling is clear proof of how their futures have been dismissed and marginalized by local and state officials. The good news is that they are resilient and we all will continue to ensure that their future dreams are not compromised by the pettiness and spite of the tragic few that made this deplorable and shameful decision.

In Lak Ech,

Curtis Acosta

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Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful film, Precious Knowledge, about the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. One of the teachers featured is Curtis Acosta, along with his remarkable students.

In the letter below, which Acosta allowed Rethinking Schools to reprint here, he offers a perspective on the curricular repression that teachers and students are confronting in Tucson. For a flavor of what knowledge is outlawed by the new law, take a look at the essay assignment Acosta gave students about Ana Castillo’s novel So Far From God, excerpted below, and the changes that school district authorities demanded.

Rethinking Columbus bannedThere has been a lot of national attention paid to the banning of Rethinking Columbus and other books used in the Mexican American Studies program. But the book banning is just collateral damage. The real target of those in Arizona who have pushed the Mexican American Studies ban is critical, social justice teaching—teaching that is alert to issues of race, class, and culture, and that asks students to reflect on issues of oppression and struggle.

There is a kind of curricular ethnic cleansing going on and educators and people of conscience around the country need to stand in solidarity with Tucson students and teachers.

As Curtis Acosta indicates in his letter, teachers there are meeting to reflect on the kind of national support that would be most helpful. In the meantime, it’s up to us to keep this issue alive in our workplaces, unions, professional organizations, Facebook pages, listservs, and in local and national media we may have access to.

Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor


To my friends and all our supporters,

Let me try a few cleansing breaths before all of this.

First, I am deeply moved by the love, commitment and creativity to help honor our plight and support our fight. Thank you all so much and I apologize to all of my friends who I have not responded to as of yet. We all are overwhelmed here in Tucson and I need a new email system for organizing all the love. Muchismas gracias y Tlazocamatli.

Curtis Acosta

Mr. Curtis Acosta

This week has provided more challenges. The teachers have still not received specific guidelines for curriculum and pedagogical changes that need to be made in order to be in compliance of the law. TUSD leadership has asked the site administrators on each campus where our classes are taught to lead the process which means that my colleagues and I are all separated from each other, and have not yet come together as a group since the destruction of our program. It also is a way to divide and conquer since we are all struggling at our individual sites for clarity and consistency. To be more specific, I meet alone with my site administration, with only my union representative as support, but separated from my MAS colleagues who also work at my school. The district leadership has done this move to wash their hands of us and any accountability to us. However, they continue to send out press releases that claim that books that are now boxed in a warehouse are not banned, and that anyone can teach critical issues like race, ethnicity, oppression, and cultura, but do not mention the exception being the censored teachers in the MAS program. The double speak is unseemly and lacks honor. I am so happy that our friends around the nation are holding them accountable since the power structure in Tucson has made sure the local media tows the line. This has been the case for years.

What I can tell you is that TUSD has decreed that anything taught from a Mexican American Studies perspective is illegal and must be eliminated immediately. Of course, they have yet to define what that means, but here’s an example of what happened to an essay prompt that I had distributed prior to January 10th.

{Chicano playwright Luis Valdez once stated that his art was meant to, “…inspire the audience to social action. Illuminate specific points about social problems. Satirize the opposition. Show or hint at a solution. Express what people are feeling.” The novel So Far From God presents many moments of social and political commentary.} Select an issue that you believe Ana Castillo was attempting to illuminate for her audience and write a literary analysis of how that theme is explored in the novel. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

{Culture can play a significant role within a work of fiction. For generations in this country, the literature studied in English or literature classes rarely represented the lives and history of Mexican-Americans.} In a formal literary analysis, discuss what makes So Far From God a Chican@ novel and how this might influence the experience of the reader. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

The brackets indicate what I had to edit since the statements were found to be too leading toward a Mexican American Studies perspective. In plainer terms, they are illegal and out of compliance. A quote from a great literary figure, Luis Valdez, is now illegal, and a fact about education in our nation’s history is also illegal.

You can imagine how we are feeling, especially without any clear guidance to what is now legal and what is not, and what makes matters worse is that TUSD expects us to move forward and redesign our entire curriculum and pedagogy to be in compliance.

I cannot speak for all my colleagues but it has become clear to me that I must abandon nearly everything I used to do in the classroom and become “born again” as a teacher. At least for the foreseeable future, since the list of individuals that are waiting to pounce upon us at our first wrong step is long and filled with powerful figures.

However, we have not lost faith that we will overcome all of these atrocious, absurd, and abusive actions to our students and to learning environment centered upon love and academic excellence. Our students have already learned so much this year and this process is teaching them so much more. They are restless, ready to act and eager for their voices to be heard, and our community is equally supportive to their desires. Our lawsuit moves forward and the unconstitutionality of the law will be debated before Judge A. Wallace Tashima. Three of the four men who voted to disband our program will be accountable on November 6th since their seats on the school board are up this election. We are strong in spirit that a better day is ahead.

Lastly, there has been an idea put forward by my good friends, Tara Mack and Keith Catone, that there should be a national day of solidarity where teachers would teach our curriculum all over the nation. I will be discussing this with my colleagues in MAS this weekend and then to Tara and Keith. They have been amazing and fired-up to help, but I have had to navigate the Tempest in our classrooms and schools before more specifics come your way. The first day we are to be officially in compliance is February 1st, so that may be a wonderful, symbolic day to keep our spirit alive through the nation.

Respectfully,

Curtis Acosta
Chican@/Latin@ Literature Teacher (forever in mind and in spirit)
Tucson

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By Bill Bigelow

Rethinking Columbus bannedImagine our surprise.

Rethinking Schools learned today that for the first time in its more-than-20-year history, our book Rethinking Columbus was banned by a school district: Tucson, Arizona. According to journalist Jeff Biggers, officials with the Tucson Unified School District ordered that teachers pull the book from their classrooms, evidently as an outcome of the school board’s 4-1 vote this week to abolish the Mexican American Studies program.

As I mentioned to Biggers when we spoke, the last time a book of mine was outlawed was during the state of emergency in apartheid South Africa in 1986, when the regime there banned the curriculum I’d written, Strangers in Their Own Country, likely because it included excerpts from a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Confronting massive opposition at home and abroad, the white minority government feared for its life in 1986. It’s worth asking what the school authorities in Arizona fear today.

I called the Tucson schools this morning seeking a statement about why they ordered Rethinking Columbus removed from classrooms. The superintendent’s office referred me to Cara Rene, Director of Communications and Media Relations for the school district. Rene has not yet returned my two phone calls.

For the record, Rethinking Columbus is Rethinking Schools’ top-selling book, having sold well over 300,000 copies. And over the years many school districts have not banned, but have purchased Rethinking Columbus for use with students. These include: Portland, Ore., Milwaukee, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Ont., Atlanta, New York City, Anchorage, Alaska, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Oakland, San Diego, Portland, Maine, Washington, DC, Cincinnati; Rochester, NY, Cambridge, Mass., Missoula, Montana, and the state of Maryland, as well as smaller towns like Stillwater, Minnesota; Athens, Ohio; Eugene, Oregon; and Estes, Colorado.

We published the first edition of Rethinking Columbus back in September of 1991, on the eve of 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas—what the Chicago Tribune promised would be the “most stupendous international celebration in the history of notable celebrations.” Rethinking Schools was determined to provide teachers with resources to prompt a more critical approach to the commemoration.

In our introduction to that first edition of the book (edited by Bob Peterson, Barbara Miner, and me) we wrote, “Why rethink Christopher Columbus? Because the Columbus myth is basic to children’s beliefs about society. For many youngsters the tale of Columbus introduces them to a history of this country, even to history itself. The ‘discovery of America’ is children’s first curricular exposure to the encounter between two races. As such, a study of Columbus is really a study about us—how we think about each other, our country, and our relations with people around the world.”

Twenty years later, these still seem like pretty sound reasons to “rethink Columbus.” And we would ask school officials in Tucson: Why not rethink Columbus?

What’s to fear? Rethinking Columbus offers teaching strategies and readings that teachers can use to help students consider perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum. For example, in 30 years of teaching, virtually all my high school students had heard of the fellow who is said to have discovered America: Christopher Columbus. However, none had heard of the people who discovered Columbus: the Taínos of the Caribbean. That fact underscores the importance of teachers having the resources to offer a fuller history to their students. Further, it points out the importance of developing teaching materials that ask students to interrogate the official curriculum about what (and who) it remembers and what (and who) it ignores—and why?

Of course, the suppression of our book is only a small part of the effort by Arizona school officials to crush the wildly successful Mexican American Studies program in Tucson. The program itself exemplifies an effort to address critical questions about stories sorely lacking in today’s corporate-produced textbooks and standardized curriculum. Students in the Mexican American Studies classes will now be dispersed to other classes, according to the resolution passed this week by the governing board of Tucson schools.

Learn more about the important struggle to preserve this program at Save Ethnic Studies in Arizona, and in articles by Jeff Biggers, at Common Dreams and below. And see my Rethinking Schools blog, “Repeat After Me: The United States Is Not an Imperialist Country—Oh, and Don’t Get Emotional About War.”

Bill Bigelow is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, co-editor with Bob Peterson of Rethinking Columbus, and author of The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

 

Other links:

SaveEthnicStudies.org

By Jeff Biggers:

Mexican American Studies Needs No Defense: It Needs More Defenders

AZ Ed Chief Compares Mexican American Students to Hitler Jugend

AZ Attorney General Says Ethnic Studies “Must be Destroyed”

Precious Knowledge

Profile in Courage: Mexican American Studies Director Sean Arce

Why AZ’s Ethnic Studies Should Matter to All Educators

AZ’s New Civil Rights Movement: Ethnic Studies

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